Lionel Trilling (July 4, 1905 – November 5, 1975) was an American literary critic, author, and teacher. Trilling was a frequent contributor to the Partisan Review and member of the group known as "The New York Intellectuals"—a group of American writers and literary critics based in New York City in the mid-twentieth century. They advocated left-wing political causses but were also firmly anti-Stalinist. The group is known for having sought to integrate literary theory with Marxism and Socialism, while rejecting Soviet Communism as a workable or acceptable political model.
Trilling maintained a life-long association with Columbia University, becoming the first Jewish professor to receive tenure in the Department of English. A popular professor, he taught Columbia’s Colloquium on Important Books for 30 years with the equally notable writer and critic Jacques Barzun. Trilling is closely associated with the Partisan Review, an American political and literary quarterly that broke with the Soviet line in 1937 in the wake of the Moscow Trials, becoming stridently anti-Soviet after the Great Purges of Stalin.
Although he never established a new school of literary criticism, Trilling is viewed as one of the great literary critics of the twentieth century for his ability to trace the cultural, social, and political implications of the literature of his time, and for his emphasis on the moral dimension of literature as a higher expression of the human spirit than the machinations of politics. While a socialist, he is also known for his criticism of New Left for failing to acknowledge the crimes of Stalinism. His 1950 collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination, is often cited as the high-water mark of liberalism, leading to a conservative resurgence in the writings of intellectuals such as James Burnham and William F. Buckley Jr.
Trilling was born in the New York City borough of Queens to a Jewish family. He graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1921 and entered Columbia University at the age of sixteen, beginning an association with the university that lasted for the rest of his life. He graduated in 1925 and received his M.A. in 1926. After teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at Hunter College, Trilling returned to Columbia to teach literature in 1932. He received his Ph.D. in 1938 with a dissertation on Matthew Arnold, which he later published, and in 1939 was promoted to assistant professor, becoming the first Jewish professor to receive tenure in the Department of English. He became a full professor in 1948, and in 1965 was named the George Edward Woodberry Professor of Literature and Criticism. He was a popular professor, and for 30 years he taught Columbia’s Colloquium on Important Books with Jacques Barzun, a well-regarded course on the relationship between literature and cultural history. His students included Norman Podhoretz, Allen Ginsberg, and John Hollander.
In 1937, Trilling joined the staff of the recently revived Partisan Review, a Marxist but anti-Stalinist journal founded in 1934 by William Philips and Philip Rahv. The magazine was closely associated with a group known as the New York Intellectuals, which included Trilling and his wife, Diana Trilling, as well as Alfred Kazin, Delmore Schwartz, William Phillips, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, F. W. Dupee, Paul Goodman, and Lionel Abel. The group was later joined by Irving Howe, Saul Bellow, Leslie Fiedler, Elizabeth Hardwick, Richard Chase, William Barrett, Daniel Bell, Hannah Arendt, Isaac Rosenfeld, Susan Sontag, Stephen Marcus, Norman Podhoretz, and Hilton Kramer. Emphasizing the historical and cultural influence on authors and literature, they distanced themselves from the New Critics and focused on the social and political ramifications of the literature they discussed. They were also concerned with the future of New York’s intellectual middle class. In his Preface to his 1965 collection of essays Beyond Culture, Trilling defends the group, saying, “As a group it is busy and vivacious about ideas and, even more, about attitudes. Its assiduity constitutes an authority. The structure of our society is such that a class of this kind is bound by organic filaments to groups less culturally fluent which are susceptible to its influence.”
Although Trilling wrote one well-received novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947), about an affluent Communist couple, and short stories including “The Other Margaret,” he devoted himself to essays and reviews in which he reflected on literature’s ability to challenge the morality and conventions of the culture. Critic David Daiches said of Trilling, “Mr. Trilling likes to move out and consider the implications, the relevance for culture, for civilization, for the thinking man today, of each particular literary phenomenon which he contemplates, and this expansion of the context gives him both his moments of his greatest perceptions, and his moments of disconcerting generalization.”
Trilling published two complex studies of authors Matthew Arnold (1939) and E. M. Forster (1943), both written in response to a concern with “the tradition of humanistic thought and the intellectual middle class which believes it continues this tradition.” His first collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination, was published in 1950, followed by the collections The Opposing Self (1955), focusing on the conflict between self-definition and the influence of culture, Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture (1955), A Gathering of Fugitives (1956), and Beyond Culture (1965), a collection of essays concerning modern literary and cultural attitudes toward selfhood.
Trilling was chosen as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University in 1970. Established in 1925, this annual post has been held by some of the most important literary figures in the English-speaking world, including T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, e. e. cummings and Octavio Paz among others. He later published a book based on the lecture series, Sincerity and Authenticity (1972), in which he explores the ideas of the moral self in post-Enlightenment Western civilization. Trilling posits that the moral category of sincerity arose at a historical moment during the age of William Shakespeare, later to be replaced by the moral category of authenticity.
He wrote the introduction to The Selected Letters of John Keats (1951), in which he defended Keats’s notion of Negative Capability, as well as the introduction, “George Orwell and the Politics of Truth,” to the 1952 reissue of George Orwell’s book, Homage to Catalonia.
In 2008, Columbia University Press published an unfinished novel that Trilling abandoned in the late 1940s. Scholar Geraldine Murphy discovered the half-finished novel among Trilling's papers archived at Columbia University. Trilling's novel, titled The Journey Abandoned: The Unfinished Novel, is set in the 1930s and involves a young protagonist, Vincent Hammell, who seeks to write a biography of an elder, towering figure poet—Jorris Buxton. Buxton's character is loosely based on the nineteenth century, romantic poet Walter Savage Landor. Writer and critic, Cynthia Ozick praised the novel's skillful narrative and complex characters, writing that The Journey Abandoned is "a crowded gallery of carefully delineated portraits, whose innerness is divulged partly through dialogue but far more extensively in passages of cannily analyzed insight."
Trilling's best-known work, The Liberal Imagination, was framed as a critique of post-war political and social attitudes. In the preface, Trilling famously asserted that “[i]n the United States at this time Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
While Trilling considered himself one of the voices of that liberalism, he nonetheless expressed some despair over its failure to address the threat of Soviet tyranny. Seeing socialism as a natural ally, they were all to willing to deceive themselves about what was happening in Stalin's Russia. "In the 1930s, liberals found it natural to grow angry over the plight of American sharecroppers while brushing aside, as unfortunate excesses, the murder of millions of peasants under Stalin. Then as now, teachers who told their students "think for yourselves" actually meant that students should think in progressive pieties rather than in conservative pieties."
It was this view of liberalism that Trilling could not abide. He became an important critic of liberalism, and although he did not make the transition to the neoconservatism that Irving Kristol and some others made, he helped provide an intellectual heft to their anticommunism. He used his literary criticism as a vehicle for developing the moral imagination as a corrective to the simplicity of much of the ideological bent of politics.
Books and Collections of Essays
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